AC Milan 0-0 Empoli: Five things we learned – questionable rotation and depth

By Isak Möller -

AC Milan were held to a 0-0 draw against Empoli yesterday and there are quite a few takeaways from the game. A top-four finish remains at risk and Stefano Pioli has a lot to think about. 

The Rossoneri controlled the game completely but lacked the final touch in attack, courtesy of above all Divock Origi. The backups thus didn’t live up to the expectations and down below are five things we learned from the draw…

1. Pioli fails to learn from past mistakes

Many of us were surprised to see five changes from the game against Napoli and our hunch turned out to be right. The rotation backfired and one can certainly question Pioli’s decision, even if the players shouldn’t be without blame either (which we will get to).

The most frustrating thing is that we have seen this from the gaffer before. Somehow, he still hasn’t learned though. This season, Milan have made five changes to their starting XI in nine games. Only four of them, however, ended in wins.

Rotations are often needed, but changing the entire front four was always going to be a gamble. Changes spread out over the field would have been easier to handle in a collective sense.

2. Origi’s horror show

Where to begin? The €4m-per-season man was completely lost last night and his impact was non-existent. He failed to connect with his teammates and mostly found himself way too high up the pitch, when Milan needed an anchor point further down (like Giroud).

And when Milan did manage to get into the final third, Origi wasn’t in the right places in the box either. He was rightfully booed by the Milan fans as he left the pitch and a summer exit seems increasingly likely for the former Liverpool man.

It’s one thing to have a bad performance, but Origi was so disjointed it was doomed from the start. As said, Milan often rely on Giroud to drop down and then make his way into the box. Origi just seemed interested in being in and around the box, but he wasn’t effective there either.

3. The 4-2-3-1 formation is looking better

There are positives to take from the game. The defence was spot on from start to finish and given that Milan didn’t play with a defensive approach (bar Bennacer as CAM), this is a sign of great improvement. The Rossoneri no longer need three centre-backs to be solid defensively.

The control Milan had of the game was also very positive, with 70% possession and only one shot conceded on target. Pioli is right in saying that the Rossoneri are returning to their former level, but we certainly aren’t there yet (at least not in attack).

4. Tonali is back

We said it after the Napoli game as well, but it’s clear that the midfielder has found his stride again after a strange period. He was everywhere last night and made several impressive interceptions, looking more and more like Gattuso.

The stamina allowed him to not only stop any potentially dangerous counter-attacks, but also to make his way up the field and he had one effort that was saved well by the keeper. Of course, he also mixed this with really good passing.

With a Tonali in good form, Milan can go far and we saw that in the Scudetto season. His ability to read the game and always be present – in defence and in attack – is world-class and the Rossoneri must make the most of that.

5. The depth is not there

This obviously relates to the first takeaway, but if we exclude Pioli for a second it’s clear that the management didn’t do enough in the summer. Divock Origi and Ante Rebic are not good enough, as things stand, to replace Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud. It’s obviously not an easy task, but we can ask for more than what we saw last night.

Tommaso Pobega did well in midfield but faded a bit too much, and the absence of Kessie is evident each week. Rade Krunic has somewhat filled that void, in the sense that he allows Tonali to roam more and thus be more Kessie-esque, while the Bosnian himself does well to balance the game.

The main point, however, is that Milan’s depth is very questionable and this also makes life difficult for the manager. Then again, five changes were not needed to the XI, that’s for sure.

Tags AC Milan Empoli


  1. We keep talking about the 5 changes in the line up.
    4 of the 5 changes Pioli was forced to make based on circumstances .
    Thiaw for Kjaer.
    With Kalulu out vs Napoli, Kjaer had to be rested because of his age and injury history. Thiaw did a good job.
    Rebic for Leao.
    Leao had some fitness issue during the week. Rebic was awful
    Origi for Giroud.
    Giroud plays every 3 days and had to be rested before ucl game. He is our only striker. If we lose him you can kiss top 4 goodbye. Origi was awful
    Saelemakers for Brahim.
    Brahim had injury, that’s why he was subbed early vs Napoli.
    His replacement Saelemakers was our best player on the field.
    The only sub that wasn’t forced was Pobega for Krunic, but based on where they play and how Pobega played there was zero drop off in this game from Krunic to Pobega.
    Milan failed in this game because of 3 players Origi, Rebic and Bennacer.
    I like very much how Saelemakers plays when he is positioned more centrally. Wouldn’t mind seeing vs Bologna a line up of Leao Saelemakers-Diaz behind Giroud.
    Vs Napoli keep Bennacer in the 10 whole because he is good in the pressing game and nullifying Lobotka

  2. Origi would be a great option for a backup striker but that’s impossible with his salary. Maldini made a mistake paying that much for a player that was really just a bench player at Liverpool.

    1. “Origi would be a great option for a backup striker”

      No! Let’s stop this BS right here. He wouldn’t be a good enough backup for the backup of the backup even if he paid Milan 1M€ per season. He’s THAT awful. Worst Milan striker ever.

  3. We could have won easily without origi, I think pioli should stop playing him and give de ketelaere a chance as center forward

      1. Yeah mate, I don’t know what happened to Rebic, he used to be a real threat as LW or FW, but I still think that he can be usefull for the rest of the season & UCL rather than Origi, this guy is hopeless

  4. The issue with the rotation is the fist 10 mins are absolutely key in these games.

    If we don’t score in the first 10 mins the other side settle and it becomes attack v defence which is really hard for any team to break down.

    We simply have to come out of the blocks quickly, knock these teams over early, and then rest players.

  5. I suspect that with the opportunity we have of making the semi final of the champions league, including the extra finances that come with it, the management decided to risk the result against emboli to ensure we had a fully rested attacking trident available for the game against Napoli.

    Rotating was the right call and there will be no regrets come seasons end.

  6. We can’t complain about not rotating and then complain about rotation! Pioli is justified in not rotating his players given what we see every time he rotates.. they’re just not good enough and were never good enough. Pobega is not good enough for Milan. Torino maybe but not Milan. I remember articles for a whole week about this guy…lol.the hilarity of rose colored glasses

    1. So Pobega (who I didn’t actually see make many mistakes) is worse than his counterpart Răzvan Marin?

      Because this is the measure. It’s not Pobega v De Bruyne, it’s Pobega v Marin?

      In fact are you saying that Milan are the same level as Empoli? They’re better than Napoli (because they won that game) but the same level as Empoli?

      Is that how it works or is it more complicated than that?

      The issue is that when Milan play a side like Empoli: all the pressure is on Milan and there’s no pressure on Empoli and Empoli put 11 behind the ball making it extremely difficult to break them down.

      Sure a De Bruyne could open them up with a defence splitting pass, and that is where the quality really becomes an issue, but the fact of the matter is that the 11 players who started against Empoli, including players who scored in Champions League finals, should’ve been able to beat Empoli.

      And the reason we didn’t was because we lacked momentum from the beginning. We simply cannot let these teams settle in because it becomes more and more difficult to break them down as the game goes on. We should be playing the first 10 mins like it’s the last. We should be treating every chance and half chance like it’s our last; no silly shots when others are open, or from awkward angles, or for glory.

      We need to be clinical. And we cannot waste a single touch or pass. More so against Empoli than Napoli.

      1. Did you even read my comment? I can’t tell if you agree or disagree with me because ur saying the players that started weren’t good enough for empoli which is exactly my point. The second team isn’t good enough and that includes Slowbega

  7. Rotating before such an important UCL match is not a mistake. Not doing it would be a mistake. Every coach in the world that has the slightest clue what he’s doing makes rotations, specially before UCL matches. It’s necessary. Even if our substitutes are subpar. It just has to be done. If you’re not going to rotate against Empoli at home when are you going to make rotations?? It’s not Pioli’s fault that the substitutes are not up to the task. I think that not giving De Ketelaere more playing time, choosing Rebic and Origi over him who have done even less than CDK this season with more minutes than he’s had is a mistake because CDK was a big investment, is young and needs those minutes far more than Rebic and Origi do since it’s very clear they’re not going to be part of the project much longer; actually, the club should be desperate to sell both of them asap. Making rotations is part of football, it has to be done. If Pioli hadn’t made rotations against Empoli and we had gotten a bad result against Napoli in UCL, you would be writing this exact same piece next week about Pioli’s mistakes in UCL roasting him for not making rotations against Empoli. If Pioli hadn’t made rotations against Empoli and we hadn’t been able to win the game, which might very well have happened, it could have had a negative mental effect on our starters that we need in perfect form to be able to compete in UCL. Come on, let’s be a little objective. And btw, if we beat Napoli and make it to the semi finals in the UCL, not a single soul is going to remember that Empoli match, I can promise you that.

    1. First teams don’t actually have to be rotated.

      The great Barca team with Messi et al. Messi played approx 500 La Liga matches in 15 seasons or an average of over 30 games per season. And he wasn’t alone. Most of that team played nearly every game over a sustained period of 5-6 seasons where they competed on multiple fronts and won titles and broke records.

      The reason teams rotate so much these days is because squads are too large and managers have too many options.

      Second it wouldn’t have mattered what players we played against Empoli since the issue was our lack of intensity from the start.
      It’s not a question of players “not being good enough” particularly as their quality is measured against the quality of Empoli players.

      Are you saying that a player who has played and scored in the Champions League is not better than his Empoli counterpart?

      The issue is that it’s almost impossible to break down a professional football team that puts 11 men behind the ball, particularly as the smaller team is playing with less pressure.

      The only way we can break these teams down is to come out hard and play the first 10 mins like it’s the last. We need to be throwing everything at them in the first 10 mins before they settle in.

      It’s also why rotation doesn’t work because it breaks up the crucial momentum that’s needed to come out of the blocks fast.

      1. That’s not entirely accurate about the Barca players back then. While they did play 50 odd games a season, they did not have a World Cup in the middle of a season which would force them to play a game every 3 days at times when the minimum required rest between games as stated by Fifpro is 4 days…. Not to mention the game was slower back then with more stoppages to make actual playing times shorter than today.

        1. So “back then” is now just about 10 years ago – when the game was “slower”?

          And “modern football” now is so different?

          I seem to remember 10 years ago people saying we needed to rotate too because of “modern football”.

          And it seems like modern footballers are going backwards. Where once they were able to play 50 games a season they now can’t.

          I think the whole attitude is influenced by our collective obsession with the transfer market. Massive squad sizes require massive amounts of transfers and then managers rotate because they’ve got a bench load of players

          It’s got nothing to do with actual football requirements.

          Many of the most successful sides over the past decade have not rotated. Sarri’s great Napoli side, Conte’s great Juve side, Klopp’s great Liverpool side also didn’t rotate like the Barca great side.

          It’s why these teams were almost robotic in their plays. And that is what is key to beating teams like Empoli where if we slow down play for a second they will get men behind the ball.

          There’ll never be back up players good enough because they will never have the fluidity that comes from playing regularly.

          That’s the difference between a Rebic before, when he was a regular match winner a few years ago, to Rebic now.

      2. I honestly think that Pep does a lot of rotation and he only has 24 players at his disposal, so I’m not too sure that what you presume is totally correct. I also think that rotating players is an important aspect of man management especially when it comes to players health, both physically and mentally.

  8. It is all about the attack and always has been. Our attack is fragile and has the worst depth of any big team.

  9. I don’t know what happen with origi I swear he miss more chance last night don’t start him again please.Ante Rebic too who very bad oh my God

  10. Giroud is a class act ..he makes a huge difference to us when he starts a match ,,he knows exactly where to be at the right time ..Technically ability inside the 18 yard area is second to none …We have so much pace around him which is so important..I expect him to have a major influence against Napoli ..I believe with our strongest team out we will knock Napoli out of the champions leauge .I also expect us to finish in the top four in the league…so stop complaining and criticising our team .We are AC Milan .

  11. Pobega was really solid.

    His positioning was so deep he faded in the second half but I put that down to him having nothing to do as Empoli played for the draw.

    His distribution in the first half had me doing retakes, it was assured and high quality.

    He also looked a lot sharper and less reactive.

    Empoli didn’t press and put him under pressure, so I’m not going to say it’s the dawning of a new era, playing as he did at a higher tempo and under pressure will be the true test, but Pioli might be developing something really valuable in Pobega: a big aggressive guy who can play as a wrecker at DM but also play 8 and even 10 (though I think we’d all prefer better options at 10).

    Pobega’s presentation tends to deceive. He looks like someone who’d be more at home in front of the defence and making tough takles but that not really him. He played at Torino mainly as a CM and AM.

    I hope we get to see him a few more times. He really showed something. Maybe we have what we need in the centre of the park in Tonali, Bennacer, Krunic, Pobega and Vranckx.

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